When the record low American birth rates were recently reported, commentators immediately rushed to their laptops, ringing the alarm bells to fault the economy for our flaccid national desire to procreate. To be sure, low fertility accompanies a weak economy without fail. But to blame the markets for what happens in our bedrooms misses a radical reshaping of our worldview. It’s not just the economy, it’s liberation. Fifty years after The Feminine Mystique was named and exploded by Betty Friedan, this has never been truer for women. The pursuit of happiness has emerged as our new national ideology, trumping the age-old belief that parental duty is the very definition, of adulthood. Some think it’s the height of selfishness; I say it’s progress.
On the heels of the birth rate report came a paper in the Journal of Marriage and Family, in which sociologist Julia Mcquillen wrote that the ever-growing population of women who choose not to become mothers feel just fine about it. She found that when women feel it’s a choice they have no control over, that’s when regret creeps in. Misreading choice as a lack of control, and sending that message reverberating through a culture, is especially poisonous to women, McQuillan tells me. Furthermore, she believes that there a correlation between “the advice at the cultural level that you need to invest in your kids,” that motherhood should be a consuming endeavor,” and the number of women opting out of it entirely. “If we make motherhood unrealistic why would we want to do that job?” she wonders. In other words, if it seems like such a struggle cloaked in unhappiness, why wouldn’t women choose to be happy?
When we seek self-fulfillment on a societal level, demography transforms. There’s a grand theory that supports this concept, called the Second Demographic Transition (stick with me here, it’s fascinating). Belgian sociologist Ron Lesthaeghe first introduced this concept in 1986 in a Dutch sociology journal. The First Demographic Transition was a shift away from high birth rates afforded by medical and industrial advances—the move from my grandmother’s ten siblings to my mother’s two. The second one, however, is born out of a battle of ideas: a shift from duty to self-actualization, from a circumscribed domestic existence to one that finds purpose and pleasure in the world outside. It’s what it means to pursue romantic love, to work on a screenplay, to go rock shows and Central American beaches—not to mention to choose a career, not just a job. It is why my mother chose to stop at one child, why I am making the same choice, and why so many of my friends are planning their fortieth birthday parties without hiring babysitters.
How did we get here? A history: As civilization advanced, and industrialization relegated most subsistence concerns to the past, our needs changed. No longer did we worry about infant mortality, the boll weevil, the violence of weather. Instead, our focus shifted to Maslow’s higher order needs, the theory suggests, or what we require when the lower order needs—physical safety, financial security—are met. Individualistic and expressive, these higher order needs essentially add up to self-actualization: creativity, spontaneity, confidence, achievement. (Some academics swear by this thinking and others growl that our diverse developed world can not be explained by a single blanket concept.)
This march toward fulfillment doesn’t stop short in times of economic struggle, despite common thinking. We tend to accept a single assumption explaining why fertility tanked during the Great Depression: that parents chose to radically limit family size because of economics. But in the decade prior, the zeitgeist of the Roaring Twenties told its denizens to just kick up their heels and live. It was an era of redefinition—women wore pants, Edith Wharton exquisitely blasted the loveless marriage—and one that wasn’t immediately erased in the crash of 1929. As several demographers have asserted—such as Jan van Bavel in Population Studies—the economic crisis was only part of the rise of only children during the Depression; modernity was the cause as surely as money. Gender roles began to shift, and with them, the cost of children began to mount: in the U.S. and abroad, women began to work outside the home, raising the opportunity costs of remaining homebound. Religious identification declined, and with it, the notion of absolute familial duty.
Twenty years later, the post-war baby boom reversed this fertility decline. But in spite of a new breed of conservatism, we continued a march toward familial transformation. Divorce, the vanguard of the fifties, stood in legal and cultural defiance of strict morality. On its heels came the Pill, the IUD, the mass-sanctioning of non-procreative sex. It took less than a century to reverse the millennia-old definitions of what a woman was, what a mother was, what a life was. It was the age in which Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman” could reach the top of the Billboard chart, and Susan Brownmiller could become Time magazine’s “Woman of the Year.” By the mid-seventies total fertility in America sank to the 1.8 mark and remained there well into the eighties. But then came the backlash: after the Equal Rights Amendment failed in Washington, and the Christian Coalition began to succeed, the traditional mother-of-two-or-more became deified once more. That Free to Be era can feel like a fever dream in these days of “legitimate rape."
We still have the highest fertility rate in the developed world—where our numbers tend to lag is in happiness and well-being data. This is what women are getting hip to, and, as McQuillan has found, are doing so without the existential costs—forget economic ones—so many have predicted. This is why I’m doing my part to keep the birth rate low: it’s less a question of whether I want to scrape the bottom of my bank account for motherhood, but whether I want to put my liberated adulthood in hock as well.